Thompson Rivers University professor Margaret Hall’s mandatory first-year legal perspectives class has historically been a difficult one to teach.
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[/a]With the material “a little tough and a little dry,” Hall says it was her mission to deliver the course in a way that made her students feel they were getting something out of it.
“Because of the nature of the material, rather than having them do a snapshot, I wanted to have a piece that was more dynamic,” explains Hall.
Together with TRU’s director of innovation Brian Lamb, the idea of using public “Wikis” was born. Split into groups at the beginning of the term and assigned one case per group, the students move through legal theorists and discuss each theory as it relates to their case. As the weeks go on, their understanding deepens and changes. Wikis — a web-based application that allows people to contribute collaboratively by adding, deleting, or updating information freely — seemed the perfect way to reflect the students’ growing knowledge.
“The thing about the Wiki is you can constantly go back and change it. It allows the students to work on it as a continuing piece, an ever-evolving piece, that you could go back and modify and change to reflect the fact that your understanding of this is constantly changing as you’re working on it,” Hall says.
Lamb, who says he is interested in educational technologies that involve an element of using the open web, recommended the public Wiki because anybody can look at it and that makes it real for the students, who are then inclined to take it more seriously.
All of a sudden, “it’s not an artificial exercise for the class, they are actually contributing to knowledge,” says Hall. The students feel part of a public conversation on the law and legal issues.
“These students were getting experience using an open platform — at the very least they’re getting a sense of how this technology works. In the more foundational sense they’re getting a sense of how collaborative writing works, how you negotiate those sorts of things, how you work together, and that’s a very important skill I think, moving forward,” says Lamb.
There is also an element of access to justice at play. Cole Rodocker, a student of Hall’s, says the Wikis show the students are “trying to embrace something where we can give information to people who don’t have it.”
“The people who come into law school are already highly educated and as such are usually very intimate with the ideas of how we need social justice and the inequalities that exist in society,” says Rodocker. “But seeing those inequalities manifest themselves within the legal system is very powerful and as such does give you more impetus to say; if I ever had any power this is how I might exercise it, or down the road if I do get a chance to help people I can more thoroughly understand not only their own individual situation but how the changes in the legal system have affected them historically and how it might affect them in the future.”
Hall sees it as part of a more open discourse between legal education specifically, lawyers generally, and the public.
“Knowing there’s a big conversation going on out there about what law is, how we understand it, what is it for, the common good, what does that mean – all those things – and the students can be part of that” makes it a worthwhile first-year exercise, Hall says. She adds it may also offer a glimpse into law school classrooms, where the general public might be at a loss as to what goes on.
With a wide variety of technology available, especially in countries such as Canada, it would be “disingenuous to have all the benefits and opportunities and not use them to their full potential,” says Rodocker.
“Technologically speaking, we are in a time that is almost unprecedented when it comes to the ways in which we can reach out to other people, the way in which we can better ourselves, and we have all those tools available. I think that kind of mentality is something you’re going to see a lot in new lawyers,” Rodocker explains.
“Not only are they going to be able to use technology, use all those different tools whether it be social media or computer programming — who knows — to better their lives and to better their clients’ lives, but you’re also going to see more people, more willing, to risk taking new approaches to how they do the law.”
“I think our generation in general, the way we understand the legal landscape as it is currently, I don’t think we’re going to have a choice. That sounds finite, a bit resolute, but it’s a lot like law school — if you’re ahead, you’re pretty much on time, and if you’re behind you’re in big trouble.”
Rodocker says his professors “by-and-large” use technology where appropriate, and aren’t averse to new and innovative ways to bring it into the classroom.
But as Lamb says, sometimes “it does require a bit of a leap . . . and that’s something that scares some faculty off. They worry that if they’re not experts on the technology how can they begin to use it,” he says.
“What we try to do is create an environment where as long as people are going into it open-mindedly and in the spirit of trying to learn, that they can pick this stuff up pretty quickly.”
Hall definitely has the open mind and the spirit to learn: She talks about integrating more technological tools into her courses, if the material lends itself to them.
“I like the idea of . . . having an intra-law school communication on classes and that’s something Brian [Lamb] could help me with. Through video links . . . people in other law schools can have common classes.”
She says it would be “really interesting” and the technology exists to do it all, it just needs to be accessed.
“If I can do it, anybody in the world can do it,” she says.